UNC Board of Governors hosts conservative academic star, looks to emulate his program

By: - December 15, 2017 2:56 pm
Professor Robert George of Princeton University speaks to the UNC Board of Governors Friday.


When the UNC Board of Governors hosted conservative Professor Robert George of Princeton Friday morning, it was quickly apparent the board has more than a passing interest in replicating his James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

How could they take his concept and up-size it to fit the much larger UNC system, board member David Powers asked.

How could they get make the center what they want while getting around concerns from faculty about academic freedom, asked board member Bob Rucho.

Several board members joked about hiring George away from Princeton.

George, for his part, mostly talked about creating a spectrum of ideological thought on the campus of Princeton.  He credited his center’s success to his collaboration with left-wing professors like his friend Cornel West, with whom he has taught students at the center.

“If the Madison program is thought of as a conservative program that is because its leader, me, is a conservative,” George said.

“We run the program in such a way as to enhance the conversation – the quality of conversation – on the campus by expanding the range of viewpoints,” George told the board. “It effects the overall ethos on the campus, which I’m very pleased to say is one of openness.”

But the center’s goal, he said, has not been to create a “safe space” for conservative students or faculty.

The center’s private funders, like the John M. Olin Foundation, do not necessarily share that view.

In a 2005 essay titled “Planting the Seeds of Liberty” James Pierson, executive director of the conservative Olin Foundation, was clear that they helped found the Madison program as a “beachhead” in the conservative struggle against left wing thought in academia.

In the essay for Philanthropy magazine Pierson said the Olin foundation has, over the last two decades, spent more than $200 million on academic grants, research centers, lectures and publications to challenge the “liberal establishment” culture on campuses. He writes:

“Instead of changing the culture in the near term, perhaps we should think instead about challenging it by adding new voices, different ideas, and fundamental criticisms of the reigning orthodoxy. This may well be the best means of changing the college culture, for a few powerful voices of criticism may at some point bring the entire ideological house of cards crashing down upon itself.”

Pierson goes on to give advice for how to maintain maximum outside influence and ensure proper purity when making donations to or setting up programs or centers at universities.

For instance, he warns against funding endowments as “once the endowment check is written, the donor loses all control over the program he has funded. Any effort to exert influence after that point will generate charges of ‘meddling.'”

Pierson also suggested making short-term donations in order to keep the program properly on the leash.

“Our rule has been to fund academic programs for three years at a time, and then generally to renew funding if they proceed according to plan, but to eliminate funding if they do not,” Pierson wrote.

Pierson further wrote that his foundation also chooses leaders of such centers carefully – usually from ideologically sympathetic faculty who are already in place. Be sure to avoid faculty or administrators having influence on that process, he advises, as is the normal rule in academia and especially at public universities.

“It is always dangerous to allow the university administration to choose this person, for he or she has probably been promised some administrative favor wholly irrelevant to your purposes. If there is a promising faculty member in place, seek to establish a relationship with him, perhaps by awarding a modest grant for research, coursework, or lectures. Allow that faculty member to draft a proposal and gain approval for it from his department or the college. If either tries to stop it, the faculty member can raise his own cries about “academic freedom.” But an established faculty member on the inside—or better yet, a critical mass of three or four such members—is essential for the program’s success. Once a program is launched with one or two sympathetic faculty members, they may be able to parlay this support to recruit additional faculty.

If, however, a donor cannot identify a sympathetic faculty member at a particular college, he should move on to another institution or give up altogether. A donor has to take his opportunities where he finds them and avoid an emotional attachment to a particular institution, which can lead to the funding of ineffective programs. As a friend at another foundation once said, ‘We fund the chefs, not the restaurants.'”

That mentality – of privately funded conservative centers launched and maintained as ideological beachheads in a struggle with a too-liberal culture at universities – is what is making faculty and staff at UNC nervous about a similar center at their university.

Why, they have asked, is the almost entirely Republican UNC Board of Governors – appointed by the GOP dominated General Assembly – looking at a small, private college’s program, run by America America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker”, as a model for UNC?

This turn of events is particularly disturbing, critics say, when a number of UNC centers to which the conservative board are ideologically opposed have been axed. That includes  the shuttering of UNC’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and the barring of the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating.

George said he was “excited that our program is being looked to as a model” by the board, but warned that funding it would be a challenge. The relatively small Madison program is run on a budget of about $2.3 million, he said. Two to three times that would be necessary to fund a center that could serve UNC, he said.

As to questions from faculty about academic freedom and challenging the foundational notions of the independence of administrators and faculty in programs and curricula on their campuses, George said he had never really run into those problems and questions.

Having spent his entire academic career at relatively small private universities rather than large, public systems, George said, he acknowledged the environments are very different.

UNC Board of Governors member David Powers chats with Robert George after Friday’s meeting.

James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, told the board that if their goal is to promote civil discourse and debate from a broad range of ideological perspectives, they needn’t “reinvent the wheel” in putting together a center.

“There are some really great models around the country – such as Texas A&M, a much more conservative system than UNC,” Anderson said.

“It’s a unique program at Princeton,” Anderson said in an interview after Friday’s discussion with George. “But it’s housed in a center and not broadly across the system. How do we take that and broaden it out so that all students get the benefit? There are universities that are already doing that, even in states that don’t have our demographic diversity – Iowa, Minnesota.”

Whatever the board ultimately decides to do, Anderson said, they need to get buy-in from faculty and administrators in order for it to be successful.

“At the individual campus level, you need that support,” Anderson said. “The chancellors need to be at the table. If I’m not at the table on this, then I probably won’t be very supportive.”

There Anderson and George agree.

“As you’re thinking about what it should be…as you’re thinking about what the right answer is…you’re going to need a much larger program,” George said. “And it has to be a program that has buy-in from various constituencies.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.